Teenage girls who
fall prey to Tehran's gangs
Chris De Bellaigue, The
November 13, 2000
They loiter in Tehran's parks and
railway terminals, fodder for the drug and prostitution gangs that
thrive in the seedier parts of the capital. Some 900 of them have
been detained by Tehran police this year alone. Each day, an average
of 45 Iranian girls run away from home, fugitives from poverty,
cruelty and social imprisonment. Too often, the fate that awaits
them is worse than the misery they left behind.
The pattern is well known, especially
to police, social workers and the gangland dons. If they are from
small-town Iran, the fugitives often get on the first train to
Tehran. "When these provincial girls reach the capital,"
says Dr Shokouh Navabinejad, a psychologist, "it's a question
of who gets to them first - the police or the gangs."
Girls picked up by the police are
passed on to state welfare organisations. Others, tempted by
promises of money and legal employment, drift into crime and the sex
trade. Some simply disappear. Of the 30 women raped and killed in
Tehran in the first six months of this year, most are believed to
have been runaways.
Hadiseh is one of the lucky ones.
This smiling 15-year-old tried no fewer than 12 times to run away
from the abusive uncle and aunt she lived with in far -flung
Lorestan. Eventually she succeeded and was found by police in the
northern town of Rasht. The police sent her to the capital.
For the past six months, she has been
living in Reyhaneh House, Iran's first home for fugitive girls, in
the centre of Tehran. Memories of the beatings she suffered have
faded. "Now," she says with a smile, "I am
Atena is another whose life has been
salvaged at Reyhaneh House. Before she left home, this 18-year-old
lived through an attempted rape by her stepfather. Hadiseh and Atena
have Fahime Eskandari to thank for their sudden good fortune.
Wrapped in a chador, the all-concealing Islamic garb, Ms Eskandari
looks anything but a courageous innovator. But when she set up
Reyhaneh House 18 months ago, this soft- spoken social scientist was
striking a blow at an entrenched tradition.
"It's never been the Iranian way
of doing things to allow outsiders to interfere in the domestic
affairs of families," she said. And now, even though similar
refuges are planned in other cities, Ms Eskandari is still obliged
to tread a careful path if she is to avoid accusations by religious
hardliners of undermining the traditional family.
Underlying her activities, she
insists, is religious discipline. Three times a day, in accordance
with the Shia Islamic tradition, the girls gather to say their
prayers, supervised by a prayer leader. Ms Eskandari rejects the
idea that Islam, by inhibiting the freedoms enjoyed by women,
implicitly encourages ill-treatment of girls in the home. "That
is not the fault of Islam," she says. "It is a religion
full of kindness."
But however broad the smiles on the
faces of the girls at the home, no one - least of all Ms Eskandari -
suggests that it represents a solution to Iran's chronic social
woes. In the third decade of the Islamic regime set up after the
1979 revolution, young Iranians are being tugged in different
directions - towards greater religiosity by ruling clerics, towards
globalisation by increasing contact with Western culture, towards
social dislocation by a stagnant economy. All of which may explain
why teenage suicide is a rising scourge.
for all Ms Eskandari's brave words about reuniting families, only 13
of the 45 girls reported missing each day end up returning home.